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''Hee Haw'' at 23

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Lulu Roman is laughing so hard she’s crying mascara tears. The robust former go-go dancer, who has been singing gospel on Hee Haw for two decades, is staring at a nude Polaroid of Hee Haw veteran George ”Goober” Lindsey. Goober was caught sans britches in the men’s dressing room earlier in the day, and Gordie Tapp, another old-timer, is flashing the photo to anyone who’ll look- which is everyone. The cast members are gathered at Nashville’s Opryland complex to tape a Club Quickies segment, which consists of host Roy Clark’s guitar picking interspersed with endearingly god-awful jokes (”I have a 1790 chest of drawers,” Lulu tells Goober. ”That’s nothing,” he replies. ”I have a $24.95 coffee table”). Later, off camera, Lulu performs her favorite trick for her coworkers: pinching up her face and squeezing her palm-size whoopee cushion. The effect is astonishingly realistic.

Yep, Hee Haw, in all its earthy glory, is still on the air. For 23 years, the corn-pone variety show has showcased country music’s finest — this year’s list includes Garth Brooks and Loretta Lynn. Once a year Lulu, creaky Grandpa Jones, and the rest of the regulars reconvene at Opryland to tape the season’s two dozen hour-long shows in seven intense weeks. They call it their family reunion.

But when the cast members returned last October to tape the 24th season — which began airing last month — they were met with some big changes, not all of which they liked. First, the famous cornfield set was gone. Everybody from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Tanya Tucker had popped out of that field to joke about henpecked husbands and lazy cousins. In its place: a pristine city-street set, a newfangled shopping mall backdrop, and the main nightclub set — a gleaming confection of glass, turquoise, and pink neon. ”There’s no straw on the floor,” says comedian Gailard Sartain. ”There are no funny smells or anything.” But most jarring of all, many old family members were gone.

Last summer, executives at Gaylord Syndicom, which owns the series, asked producer Sam Lovullo, who has been with Hee Haw from the start, to bring the show into the ’90s. Though Hee Haw had a loyal middle-aged audience, it had failed to catch on with the young, cosmopolitan crowd that had embraced country music since Randy Travis released his 1986 album, Storms of Life. Ratings for the show, which at the height of its popularity in the mid-’70s was seen in nearly 10 million households each week, had dropped by more than half. The show, facing competition from The Nashville Network and VH-1 (and now, NBC’s Hot Country Nights), had slid into late-night or early-morning time slots.

Hee Haw had come to a crossroads, and the bosses knew it. Get out of Kornfield Kounty, Lovullo was told. Take it ”to the suburbs,” as one executive said, and reel in the young folk.

That meant, among other things, firing several Hee Haw Honeys, some of whom had been squeezing into their calico hot pants for nearly 20 years. ”I think I went into a depression for about a month,” says Lovullo, 61, recalling the task. In July, he bade farewell to Honeys Misty Rowe, Gunilla Hutton, and Marianne (Mrs. Kenny) Rogers. The only Honeys asked to stay were Irlene Mandrell (Barbara’s youngest sister) and Linda Thompson. Other regulars, including Cathy Baker, who had ended each show with a cheery ”that’s all,” gap-toothed Roni Stoneman, and the Hee Haw gospel quartet, were also not invited back.

Over the next three months Lovullo hired art director Bill Camden, who had done Hee Haw‘s original sets and worked on Designing Women, to change the show’s look, and auditioned nearly 300 hopeful Honeys. The winners are all in their 20s: L.A. model Dawn McKinley; actress-singer Alice Ripley; Donna Stokes, a former Miss Snap-On Tools; and Becky and Lindy Norris, twins from Branson, Mo. Lovullo also hired Cuban singer-dancer Pedro Tomas, comedian Gary Mule Deer, and Billy Baker, a former clown.

Lovullo asked head writer Herbert Fox, 63, to update old sketches. An aerobics skit was moved from a barn to an exercise studio. The Curl Up and Dye beauty salon segment would now take place at a department store. New spots include ”The Sally and Jesse Raphael Show,” starring the Norris twins, and the surreal ”Leave It to Beepo,” about a suburban family of clowns (”Binky, don’t play with your nose at the table”).

That still left room for some of what Fox calls the ”vaudeville blackout” groaners:

”That stupid guy I’m dating took the phone out of his car,” says one Norris twin to the other during a Club Quickies segment.

”Why’d he do that?”

”He was tired of running out of the house to answer it.”

Roy Clark, the sole host of the show since former partner Buck Owens bowed out in 1986, is tuning his guitar and waiting to tape a round of medleys. ”Most young people haven’t plowed,” he says. ”Most of them have not been raised on farms. We’re just trying to make it a little more acceptable to them.” Like Clark, the show’s veterans are trying to be optimistic about the changes, but they miss their old friends. ”When we started this, we were all kids,” says Lulu Roman, 45, her eyes misting. ”I thought we were going to get to grow old together, you know? That hurts.”

But Hee Haw cast members are accustomed to helping each other through painful times: the deaths of resident fat man Junior Samples in 1983 and comedian Archie Campbell in 1987, and the strokes suffered last year by Grandpa Jones, 78, and Minnie Pearl, 79, who now uses a wheelchair.

”It’s Hee Haw but it’s not,” says longtime Honey hairdresser Cindy Rich as the revamped cast gathers for a photo shoot. ”The old cast would be screaming and laughing and cutting up with each other.” But today a subtle tension descends. Roman’s irritated twang can be heard shouting from behind one of the new Honeys: ”You can’t see me. There’s hair in my face!”

Being a new Honey under the circumstances can be a mixed bag. ”It’s hard being a Barbie doll all the time,” says Alice Ripley, a striking, no-nonsense Kent State graduate. But the inseparable Norris twins don’t seem to mind the demands. ”We always wanted to be an actress,” says Lindy.

The tension on the set dissipates when Linda Thompson, a Honey of 15 years, arrives with a new wedding ring the size of Amarillo. Thompson, who dated Elvis Presley and married and divorced Bruce Jenner, is talking about her new husband, composer David Foster. Thompson regales everyone with stories of their June wedding, set against a Santa Barbara sunset. ”Barbra Streisand turned to a friend of mine and said, ‘Well, what do you think about this for backlighting?”’ Then Thompson leaves, announcing she has to find a push-up bra for the show. ”See?” says Rich sadly. ”This is how it used to be.”

Despite Hee Haw‘s home-baked flavor, the show was cooked up with shrewd marketing instincts. In 1968, Canadian producers Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth, the team behind The Jonathan Winters Show, looked at that year’s top shows and figured that Laugh-In plus The Beverly Hillbillies equaled surefire success. With producer-agent Bernie Brillstein (The Blues Brothers, the new Dennis Miller Show), they sold the idea to CBS. In 1971 CBS killed its rural shows, including Green Acres, but Hee Haw was resurrected in syndication later that year.

Since its beginning, the show has caught flack — for the Honeys’ skimpy outfits and for what some have charged is an insulting attitude toward the South. The revamped show probably won’t change anyone’s mind. The Honeys still wear something less than bathing suits, although their gloriously tacky gingham ruffles have been replaced by just plain tacky miniskirts, which belong more to 42nd Street than Main Street. ”They just hired younger bimbos, that’s all,” says country singer K.T. Oslin, who refuses to appear on the show because of its portrayal of women.

”Maybe its time has passed,” says Brillstein, who is no longer associated with the show. ”If something has been on that long, I don’t know if you ever fix it. They tried to do it to The Carol Burnett Show…”

Hee Haw will still attract top musicians, however. Most stars have long considered a Hee Haw appearance a rite of passage. Even Kenny Rogers says he and Marianne are still ”good friends” with the show. Garth Brooks has such an affinity for it that when he taped a show for this season, he insisted on wearing the old show’s trademark overalls instead of the men’s new jewel-toned shirts and pressed jeans.

Longtime employees can get nostalgic too. ”The overalls were comfortable and there was just one change a day,” says Gailard Sartain, who also appeared on the 1978 spin-off, The Hee Haw Honeys. He comes back to Hee Haw every year, despite a flourishing movie career (he’s currently Kathy Bates’ oafish husband in Fried Green Tomatoes).

But Sartain is also a realist. Between takes, he drags on a cigarette and ponders whether Hee Haw‘s new dress will spoil the old girl. ”I think change is always good,” he says. ”I don’t know why it wouldn’t work. Then again, I don’t know why it would…I mean, no one ever thought Hee Haw would be on this long, anyway.” So give it another two decades; maybe the mall of today will be the cornfield of tomorrow.

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